Canada's 'cow town'

The rodeo, that quintessentially western carnival, is an annual event in many towns west of the Mississippi. But, if there were such a thing as a benchmark rodeo, it would have to be the Calgary Stampede.

Even the name conjures up images of a level of hoof-stomping frenzy that might intimidate meeker pretenders to the title. And, in Calgary, the rodeo is not some in today, out tomorrow road show, it's a fixture.

For a week and a half in early July each year, Calgary, in Canada's western province of Alberta, decks out and suits up for the Stampede, in the process becoming the ultimate cow town (if a city of about 850,000 can be characterized as a town).

Waves of bobbing cowboy/girl hats roll toward the huge fairgrounds, not far from the center of the city. Beneath the traditional headwear are men in bluejeans and decorative shirts of varying designs and women favoring black jeans and colorful blouses. All are shod in the appropriate boots, naturally.

There is electric adventure in the air as the crowd is drawn forward by the sound of down-home music, the smoky smells of savory food, and the sense that everyone is headed somewhere ultimately exciting.

The Stampede was founded in 1912 to celebrate "the virtues and magic of the Old West."

Much has been added since Tom Three Persons rode Cyclone to victory in the saddle bronc competition that year: permanent year-round fixtures such as a huge display hall, entertainment venues, a permanent grandstand, and many smaller facilities, situated throughout the 137-acre Stampede Park.

Attendance at this "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" has grown to well over a million annually.

Each year, a huge carnival springs up amid the permanent structures. Barns enclose blue-ribboned livestock – exotic breeds of cloven-hoofed, pelted, or feathered creatures. Vendors display everything from pocketknives to mobile homes.

Children stick their lips to swirls of cotton candy, and then slingshot themselves into the skies on rides not recommended for the faint of heart. Music is everywhere. as marching bands parade by.

Food sizzles tantalizingly on grills. The homey fare ranges from burgers and barbecue to pasta and enchiladas.

If you arrive looking like a city slicker and want to walk out looking like Clint Eastwood, there are western-wear shops at every turn, virtually demanding that you trade in that baseball cap for a 10-gallon Smithbilt, the Canadian equivalent of the American Stetson.

Appropriate to its cowboy reputation, Calgary has become the base for Canada's country-music establishment. Bands perform at venues throughout the grounds.

Of course, all of the activities – exciting as they may be – are simply accessories to the main event. Center stage is the rodeo competition, that display of he-man and she-woman bravado that can happen only with a human being atop a mount struggling to hang on for the required eight seconds.

The various ranch-inspired roping and riding events begin at midday and continue until the sun goes down, which at this time of year is around 10:30 p.m.

Men sit atop raging bulls, hoping to hang on just long enough to hear the eight-second horn and swing behind a rescue rider. Many get chucked skyward by the bull – three-quarters of a ton of pounding hoofs, bouncing hips, and flashing horns. Deposited face-down in the soft, damp earth, the thrown riders get to their feet, and then start running and hope it's in a direction away from the whirling, twirling bull.

The purse for each of the main events is $50,000 (Canadian; about $32,825 US.)

Women race around barrels in displays of horsemanship that require speed and agility. They also demonstrate trick riding, a dying skill: They stand up in the stirrups, then swing down along the side of the horse, finally dropping down virtually under the horse's belly and dragging their arms in the loose earth.

Youngsters ages 10-13 ride steers, hang on until the bell, then hop off, slap their big hats against their chaps, and raise their arms to the cheering crowd.

Racing chuck wagons

After a dinner break, the evening competition begins, a controlled chaos called chuck-wagon racing. It's pretty much what it sounds like, except, of course, these are "racing" wagons, not those rolling, jangling diners from old cowboy movies that looked as though they would fall into a heap of lumber around the next mountain curve.

Heats of four wagons each fly around a 5/8ths of a mile track. Wagons assume one of four positions in the rodeo arena before the grandstand. Four "outriders" stand beside their mounts, each holding the reins of a wagon in one hand, the reins of their horses in the other.

At the blast of a horn, assistants throw a stove and a post into each wagon (symbolic of the cooking and tentmaking materials these wagons used to carry), and the race is set in motion.

Wagons swirl about the infield, headed for the opening to the race track. The outriders mount their horses and tear off into the midst of it all. Except for the multiple mounts and the white-topped wagons, the event now resembles a standard horse race. The finish is right before the grandstand, where all this started.

"The outriders keep the teams from drifting off," explains Les Campbell, who holds a red flag aloft at the finish line. Mr. Campbell has seen more than a few of these races in his 50 years of working at the Stampede, where he has been waving the finish-line flag since 1969.

"There are nine heats each night, and the teams get points for finishing [in places] one through 36. The team with the best single race time for the week wins a brand-new truck. The top four teams get to race for a $50,000 purse the last night of the event."

Western culture is on display throughout the fairgrounds. There is an Indian village, where representatives of Canada's indigenous peoples demonstrate beadwork, clothingmaking, tepee-raising, and cooking.

Some remarkable western art is displayed at the gallery, salesroom, and auction of the Western art show, one of the largest exhibits of its kind anywhere. On display are pieces ranging from oils and watercolors to bronzes and stone carvings.

But there's more to Calgary than the rip-roaring Stampede. The prestigious Glenbow Museum Art Gallery has wonderful permanent collections showcasing Western art and native arts and crafts, along with historical and contemporary pieces from other parts of the world.

Beyond the Stampede

The Calgary Science Center should definitely be on your itinerary if you have the whole family along. It has nighttime sky viewing and a changing array of exhibits for those who visit during daylight hours.

At 626 feet above the city, the Calgary Tower (somewhat reminiscent of the Space Needle in Seattle), is a good starting point for touring the city. It provides a great outlook on what man hath wrought beneath, with the natural backdrop of the prairies and the mountains in the distance.

Calgary also offers easy access to some of that natural scenery.

About an hour's drive from the city center is Banff National Park, where the snow-capped Canadian Rockies will have you thinking you are part of a picture postcard.

Less than half an hour from the park's entrance is the lovely town of Banff, ringed by mountains and blessed with water seemingly everywhere. (See story on pages 14 and 21.)

Here you can take a canoe out onto Lake Minnewanka, a gondola up Sulphur Mountain for a dip in a mineral spring, or a helicopter to one of the other nearby mountains for a hike through alpine meadows laced with colorful wildflowers, past cascades of water falling from peaks whose snowcap is melting in the warm summer sun.

The quiet beauty of the mountain experience provides a lovely contrast to the excitement of the rodeo and the bustle of the "big city" and its annual Stampede.

• This year's Calgary Stampede runs from July 5 to 14. For more information, see the website www.calgarystampede.com; e-mail tourism@calgarystampede.com; telephone 800-661-1260 or (403) 261-0101; or write Calgary Stampede, PO Box 1060, Station M, Calgary, Alberta T2P 2K8 Canada.

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